The rise of the international surrogacy industry in recent decades, aided by globalization and technological and medical advances, has many well-documented downfalls. As the pandemic imposed strict travel bans and lockdowns, these downfalls have only become more apparent and resulted in hundreds of orphaned babies born from surrogate mothers.
More than 100 babies stranded in Ukraine
The most-reported case has dwelled on the plight of babies stranded in a clinic in Kyiv. Many are the product of surrogacy arrangements between Ukrainian mothers and couples from different countries. Specifically, the news reports have mostly focused on the case of Spanish or UK couples, as both countries ban commercial surrogacy.
According to Euronews, “After Ukraine went under lockdown and closed its borders, more than 100 surrogate babies were left stranded across the country. The children were due to be collected by their parents from countries including France, Italy and Spain.
BioTexCom, the largest surrogacy clinic in Ukraine, drew worldwide media attention to the problem when it released footage of rows of babies in bassinets in Kyiv’s Venice Hotel.”
There is no international law, European or otherwise, that specifically applies to surrogacy, so each country has different laws and regulations. While in the UK, for example, couples that resort to surrogate mothers abroad can still apply to be considered as parents on the child’s birth certificate, Spanish couples have to bring the child to Spain and start adoption procedures. Until then, the child has the nationality of the birth mother – in this case, Ukrainian – leading to bureaucratic tangles turned into nightmares during the pandemic.
From foreign couples being stranded in Ukraine without ensuring a passport for the surrogate children to couples not being to “collect” the babies at all, the pandemic has uncovered the dangerous loopholes that torment the commercial surrogacy industry. Such loopholes were always problematic, but with most borders closed and travel restricted to a minimum, they are effectively leading to the abandonment of infants.
The Ukrainian surrogacy industry has been the focus of investigative reports in recent years, denouncing the blatant exploitation in many of these agreements between reproductive clinics and international couples. The testimony of one of the surrogate mothers regarding the conditions offered by the most powerful surrogacy company in the country, BioTexCom, is jarring:
“We were treated like cattle and mocked by doctors,” Alina said. “There was no hot water, we washed with plastic bottles over the toilet with water that was preheated in a kettle. I wanted to be transferred to a different hospital, but the staff threatened to not pay me at all if I complained to Anca [the intended mother for the child].”
Still, despite coverage of mistreatment and abuse, several couples continued to go Ukraine for cheaper commercial surrogacy agreements. However, although commercial surrogacy is legalized in Ukraine, it is still poorly regulated.
Although most news reports are sympathetic to the plight of couples anxiously awaiting to hold their babies and take them home, the unprecedented situation in Ukraine should governments to carefully examine the drawbacks of commercial surrogacy.
Commercial surrogacy and child abuse
Ukraine is now one of the world’s hotspots for the surrogacy industry, but that was not always the case. Asian countries such as India or Thailand led the way but eventually banned the industry due to repeated cases of exploitation and abuse by both foreign couples and local agencies.
Commercial surrogacy is highly lucrative and therefore companies devoted to finding international couples and connecting them to usually low-income women are rightfully considered to be predatory.
But the bad practices are not just the responsibility of agencies, but often also of the couples themselves. In one case documented by ABC News (Australia), a baby was abandoned by her American “parents” after being born prematurely and expected to die early.
The child eventually survived, exceding expectations of recovery, but the bureaucratic process of adoption was never officialized by the Americans registered as her “parents”. This had led the child to linger in a dangerous limbo: “Bridget was essentially stateless as she wasn’t considered a Ukrainian citizen and no application had been made for her to become an American citizen”.
Other cases are even more worrying. Pedophiles and child predators have reportedly been able to enter transnational surrogacy agreements, despite having a record in their home countries. There have also been links to international child trafficking rings, exemplified by an infamous case in Australia:
“…Newton was sentenced to 40 years in prison for sexually abusing the boy he and Truong, 36 from Queensland, had ‘‘adopted’’ after paying a Russian woman $8000 to be their surrogate in 2005. Police believe the pair had adopted the boy ‘‘for the sole purpose of exploitation’’. The abuse began just days after his birth and over six years the couple travelled the world, offering him up for sex with at least eight men, recording the abuse and uploading the footage to an international syndicate known as the Boy Lovers Network.”
Should commercial surrogacy be banned?
In 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children Maud de Boer-Buquicchio denounced commercial surrogacy as a threat to children’s rights. She stated: “Surrogacy is a growing industry driven by international demand, making it an area of concern for children’s rights and protection. Commercial surrogacy, as currently practiced in some countries, usually amounts to the sale of children.”
The situation in Ukraine is not unique and as demand for surrogates rises across the world, it is expected that more women and children will suffer. Some countries have chosen to allow for altruistic forms of surrogacy to be regulated, but it is difficult to control whether money is being offered under the table or not to the surrogate mother.
Although the debate regarding altruistic surrogacy is more heated and complex, there seems to be an agreement that commercial surrogacy usually leads to exploitation and abuse, harming children’s rights, and creating dangerous bureaucratic loopholes.
For Boer-Buquicchio, it was clear that “if a surrogate mother or third party receives remuneration or any other consideration for the transfer of the child, a sale occurs, as defined under international human rights law”, in violation of the Convention for the Rights of the Child.
Therefore, the international community must eventually find a joint solution to fight exploitation and trafficking through commercial surrogacy. As always, COVID-19 has only amplified the problem and urgent action is needed now more than ever.